Food & Drink

Lean, mean and mostly green

Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? There can be so much more to a salad than opening a bag of gourmet greens and tossing them with a store-bought dressing.

The components for a successful salad are as varied as the cooks who prepare them. For today’s lesson, we’re giving you the basics for building an awesome salad and making homemade dressing.

The best way to dress those delicate greens is with a vinaigrette. Making your own is more economical than buying bottled dressing. It costs less than $1 to make a pint of vinaigrette compared with $2 to $4 for a bottle at the supermarket.

According to the Canned Food Alliance, 2 tablespoons of a bottled vinaigrette contains 150 calories, 16 grams of fat and 150 milligrams of sodium. A homemade lemon vinaigrette has 25 calories, 2.4 grams of fat and 93 milligrams of sodium in 2 tablespoons.

A vinaigrette is the simplest of salad dressings, but it can be as complex as you want to make it. It’s a mixture of wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh green herbs in season. Even simpler is one part juice to one part oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

To take the recipe to an even higher level, use a different oil or vinegar, but always good quality. Extra-virgin olive oil is the first choice for most vinaigrettes, although many recipes call for vegetable oils. They’re best for strongflavored dressings. “Pure” olive oil adds a fruity flavor, and walnut oil adds a nutty taste. If you would like to dress your salad to accompany an Asian meal, choose toasted sesame oil or Asian sesame oil. It has a potent flavor and is highly perishable, so store in the refrigerator.

Vinegar also comes in a variation of flavors: red wine, white wine, cider, rice and balsamic. They also come in gourmet varieties.

The proper way to blend the vinegar and oil is to use a whisk and a rubber-bottomed bowl, although a pint jar with a screw lid works well. You’ll need both hands — one to pour in the oil and the other to whisk, so make sure the bowl is steady. If you don’t have a rubber-bottomed bowl, you can shape a towel in a ring around the bottom of the bowl for proper traction.

To begin, dissolve a little bit of salt in the vinegar. Some cooks like to add a small amount of Dijon mustard, which acts as an emulsifying agent. Whisk in the mustard until well combined, then slowly pour the oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly, until the oil is worked in and does not separate from other ingredients.

Experiment with this basic vinaigrette by adding ingredients such as herbs, garlic, shallots, citrus zest, pesto, fruit jelly, honey or a pinch of brown sugar.

For the salad, use a big bowl at least twice as big as the amount of ingredients. Toss the salad with a small amount of dressing; you can always add more. You don’t want a soggy salad.